Tag: securities fraud

SEC imposes $125 million civil penalty on Nikola for alleged material misstatements

Happy New Year!

In July of last year, as discussed in this PubCo post, the SEC and DOJ charged Trevor Milton, the founder, former CEO and executive chair of Nikola Corporation, with securities fraud for disseminating, primarily through social media, false and misleading information about Nikola’s technological achievements. In addition to civil SEC charges, Milton faced two counts of criminal securities fraud and one count of wire fraud, with maximum 20- and 25-year prison terms if convicted. He pleaded not guilty. But, interestingly, there was no word about the company. Was the company completely off the hook for the CEO’s alleged misrepresentations? Now we know that the answer is—far from it. In December, the SEC announced that Nikola had “agreed to pay $125 million to settle charges that it defrauded investors by misleading them about its products, technical advancements, and commercial prospects.” According to Gurbir Grewal, the SEC’s Director of Enforcement, “Nikola Corporation is responsible both for Milton’s allegedly misleading statements and for other alleged deceptions, all of which falsely portrayed the true state of the company’s business and technology.” And in this case, Milton’s alleged misstatements were attributed to the company even though many of the statements were communicated through Milton’s personal account, not the company’s corporate account. Although, according to the SEC, there were plenty of material misrepresentations in Nikola’s registration statements and other standard communications (i.e., not only alleged misstatements through Milton), the case reinforces the point that fraudulent or misleading statements don’t have to be in a prospectus or 10-K to be actionable—social media will do just fine. The case also highlights the need for companies to take social media into consideration in the context of disclosure controls and procedures, potentially including communications, to the extent that they relate to the company, that are made through personal accounts.

SEC charges company and finance executives with raiding the cookie jar

Just in time for the holidays—cookie jars full of…revenue adjustments! In this complaint, the SEC charged American Renal Associates Holdings, Inc., a national provider of dialysis services, and three of its finance executives with securities fraud and other misconduct. According to the SEC, the alleged fraudulent scheme involved a “series of revenue adjustments to make it appear that ARA had beat, met, or come close to meeting various predetermined financial metrics, when in fact its financial performance was materially worse.” After receiving an inquiry from the SEC, ARA conducted an internal investigation that led the company to restate its financials, which, according to the SEC, showed that the company had overstated its net income by over 30% for 2017 and by more than 200% for the first three quarters of 2018.  The revenue adjustments in the cookie jar, the SEC charged, were one of the key ingredients used in this alleged effort to cook the company’s books.

DOJ and SEC file fraud charges against Nikola CEO

Is there anything topical missing from this case? There’s a SPAC. There’s social media. There’s an unorthodox, charismatic CEO. There are electric vehicles. There are hydrogen trucks with drinking fountains using water produced by the trucks as a by-product of their hydrogen fuel cells—or not. And, there’s a DOJ criminal indictment and an SEC complaint. Yes, I’m talking about the case against Trevor Milton, the founder, former CEO and former executive chairman of Nikola Corporation, who was charged last week with “repeatedly disseminating false and misleading information—typically by speaking directly to investors through social media—about Nikola’s products and technological accomplishments,” according to the SEC press release.  What’s more, the DOJ charged, Milton exploited the SPAC structure with a “self-proclaimed media blitz” of false and misleading public statements during a period of time that, in an IPO setting, would have been considered a “quiet period.” In addition to civil SEC charges, Milton faces two counts of criminal securities fraud and one count of wire fraud, with maximum 20- and 25-year prison terms if convicted.  He pleaded not guilty. As described by the U.S. Attorney for the SDNY (with an appropriate vehicular metaphor), “[a]s alleged, Trevor Milton brazenly and repeatedly used social media, and appearances and interviews on television, podcasts, and in print, to make false and misleading claims about the status of Nikola’s trucks and technology.  But today’s criminal charges against Milton are where the rubber meets the road, and he now will be held accountable for his allegedly false and misleading statements to investors.” The case reinforces the point that fraudulent or misleading statements don’t have to be in a prospectus or 10-K to be actionable—social media will do just fine.  According to the Regional Director of the SEC’s Fort Worth Regional Office, “[p]ublic company officials cannot say whatever they want on social media without regard for the federal securities laws.  The same rules apply, and the SEC will hold those who make materially false and misleading statements accountable regardless of the communication channel they use.” Notably, this is the second recent case involving SEC charges of misleading claims in connection with a SPAC. (See this PubCo post.)

Secret sauce, sausages and cookie jars…

No, it’s not an episode of Top Chef, but it is about “cooking the books.” And  those are just some of the ingredients and tools used by Brixmor Property Group, a publicly traded REIT, and four of its executives to do the cooking: manipulation of a key non-GAAP financial measure, according to this SEC complaint and order and, even more to the point, this SDNY criminal indictment of the executives. As alleged, management sought to create the impression that a static pool of its existing properties showed steady and predictable income growth across a number of quarters. In contrast, however, Brixmor’s actual income growth rate was “volatile and frequently fell above or below the company’s publically issued guidance range” for the period. So, according to the order,  the company architected the desired illusion—touted as its “secret sauce”—by engaging in some “sausage-making” with regular hits to the “cookie jar.”  While it doesn’t sound very appetizing, it did create the desired deception—until, of course, it didn’t. The lesson is that manipulation of a non-GAAP measure, together with violations of GAAP, to mislead the public can be trouble—and perhaps even criminal.  Although cases of  accounting fraud may not be as common as they once were, this case should serve as a reminder that the SEC and the Justice Department are still on the lookout for it.

SCOTUS finds primary securities fraud liability for disseminating statements made by others with intent to defraud

Last week, SCOTUS decided Lorenzo v. SEC, a case involving a claim that an investment banker was liable for securities fraud when, at the direction of his boss, he cut, pasted and disseminated to potential investors information that his boss had provided, even though the banker knew the information was false.  In a 2011 case, Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, SCOTUS had held that, an “invest­ment adviser who had merely ‘participat[ed] in the draft­ing of a false statement’ ‘made’ by another could not be held liable in a private action under subsection (b) of Rule10b–5.”   (Rule 10b–5(b) prohibits the “mak[ing]” of “any untrue statement of a material fact.”)  In Lorenzo, the question before the Court was whether a person who did not “make” statements (that is, who did not have “ultimate authority” over the statements), but who knowingly disseminated false statements to potential investors with intent to defraud, could be found to have violated subsections (a) and (c) of  Rule 10b–5.  The answer, in an opinion written by Justice Breyer, was yes. Will this case embolden plaintiff’s counsel to push the envelope and assert claims against people who are only peripherally involved in the dissemination of allegedly false information?  Time will tell what the ultimate impact of this case may be.

SEC sends a message — to executives and their companies

by Cydney Posner In October  2013, SEC Chair Mary Jo White gave a speech at the Securities Enforcement Forum in which she declared an “enforcement mission” of the SEC to be implementation of the “broken windows” theory of crime deterrence made famous decades ago in NYC: “The [‘broken windows’] theory is […]

Stinging dissent by Commissioner Aguilar: Is the SEC making fraudulent behavior look like an innocent mistake?

by Cydney Posner Following on the heels of a case, discussed in this post,  in which a CEO and CFO were charged with internal control and books and records violations (but no typical financial statement fraud allegation), comes another case against a CEO and CFO that likewise concluded with violations of […]